Russia: Ring Around the Kremlin
By Kent E. St. John
The Russian Bear is alive and thriving. It is 90% Teddy and 10% Grizzly. I found out during a recent visit to Moscow in September. In many ways my preconceived notions from a childhood filled with James Bond, cold war and détente proved wrong. Some however proved true. All in all Moscow should fit with anyone's idea of a city packed with history, art and excitement.
Better yet is the unraveling of history in the making. Moscow is determined to take its place on the world stage.
There is no better way to observe a city than when it is celebrating itself. Thus I planned my visit to include the two day, Days of Moscow Celebration. During this event the city's inhabitants hold a party just because. It was a trip I will always remember.
Your Papers Please
As an American, obtaining a visa for a trip is usually not even an issue, but for Russia it is. It is however, a very minor issue. The why, was a question I poised to Sergei Ananov, vice–chairman of the Moscow Committee for Tourism.
His answer made great sense. Can you imagine what a Moscow citizen goes through to visit America ? Bottom line, nothing as easy as it is for us to visit Moscow. My visa was obtained through Go To Russia gotorussia.com and done online.
So much for the paper wall. The average time a visa takes is two weeks so plan accordingly. It does add a conversation piece to your passport. The easiest visa to obtain is a tourist visa and that should cover most visitors.
Kremlin on in
After driving in some of the world's worst city driving conditions I encountered a place that is Hades for drivers. Seven lanes unmarked pass into two. I appreciated our driver, he maneuvered like a tank commander, and he probably at one time was. Moscow, however is very clean, friendly and visually exquisite.
Most striking is the mix of buildings. Modern, Stalinist and old create a hodge-podge that works well. Golden Onion shaped domes gleam in the bright sun. To avoid the traffic mess above ground the metro is a necessity.
The metro itself is beautiful, cheap (50 rubbles for 10 tickets or $1.50) and relatively easy. Built under the Stalin government, some stations were showpieces and remain so. A good place to begin planning your trip is the city's tourist board site. There is even some Russian words to learn, or try to!
The Cyrillic alphabet to me is unfathomable. That made the color coding for the metro a great assistance. The kindness of two citizens literally going out of their way to escort me to my destinations when lost speaks volumes of Moscow's hospitality.
Hot Time in the Old Town
One of my biggest misconceptions of Moscow was money. I've always been told that it is very expensive! It can be if you have caviar taste, but in general it was reasonable and at times down right cheap. Especially if you tough it up and use the point and hand gesture method.
In other words go local and language be damned. The second misconception I held was lack of cleanliness, but the city is very well kept up.
After watching the fireworks over Red Square on night one of the celebration, I wondered if there were enough places and people to get rid of the massive garbage. Yes mostly bottles and cans! I walked back in the morning and was so pleasantly surprised. Spotless and sparkling comes to mind.
That brings to mind the one thought I had that was true. They do drink in Moscow! Not all bad but do not try to compete, you will not win. The Muscovite is gracious, friendly and helpful, just keep your wits about.
Moscow has somewhat of a dangerous reputation, which I really didn't encounter. I walked several times even at night back through the city with no problems. However there is crime and robbery so be as alert as you would be in any city.
As for the Russian Mafia that is so talked about, they are not really interested in you the tourist. It was actually interesting to see men surrounded by big beefy bodyguards and huddled with lithe model types sipping champagne. Each bottle costing more than the average monthly salary of the city's professionals.
A doorman at the five-star Hotel Ararat Park Hyatt filled me in on the new status symbol, big SUV vehicles. The better the brand the better the table inside.
After dining inside that night, some friends and I went back for lunch the next day to watch the Russian version of the Sopranos. The beers and wine were at a regular New York City price, so we too were being decadent capitalists.
Hanging the Hat
Sleeping in the bear's lair can be costly. I hunkered down in the Hotel Katerina in the sector known as the Swedish Area.
It was modern, neat and well run. For some reasonable options click on this link.
Expect to get what you pay for, a golden rule in the Capitol.
Staying at the Katerina, while a little out of the way, was still lively. Its restaurant seemed to cater every event possible. The earplugs were needed. So I headed down and joined in…after all I was here to celebrate!
Due to the Days of Moscow events many of Moscow's premier sites such as the Kremlin were closed to the public. That taught me a lesson I will not forget—before going to a destination, research. I had thought that Go to Russia would have thought of it but ultimately it was my responsibility as a traveler to check.
The upside was the great parade of people filling the city center and stages of performers filling the streets. The marching past of student groups and general frivolity was wonderful.
Moscow, I decided, is more than historic sights. It is a living breathing and complex cosmopolitan city, aching to be walked, back and forth, and then done again. Walking tour
Everytime you will catch something missed the last pass. My best experience was coming across a Communist rally, complete with elder gentlemen in uniforms and chests filled with medals. The medals now useless and pensions small, but the ability to protest is evident. The irony of tee shirts available nearby with the CCCP letters proves that even communism has a capitalist appeal.
In contrast my visit to Sculpture Park, “graveyard of fallen monuments“ the resting-place of statutes of Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and others are on display. Memorable was a battered bust of Stalin.
Moscow is a city where anything can happen and will. That is its biggest attraction.
The streets were so crowded heading out of Moscow that road shouldersand even footpaths through the nearby woods got clogged with cars. I had to wonder what the hell I was doing!
As we all were on the van, our guide Galina explained that many were headed to their dachas out of town. The dacha best explained is not a big, expensive manor but a small place where Muscovites maintain small cabins and gardens. It took a few hours to leave the traffic behind; I highly recommend that you do not do this as a day trip. Golden Ring website
Our first stop on the Golden Ring was the city of Vladimir, dating from 1108 and once a center of Russian power. Until those darn Tartars invaded. Three very impressive sights were the Golden Gate and the Assumption Cathedral and the St. Dmitry Cathedral. The churches contain gems of iconic works.
· The Golden Tower was part of the city's defensive walls and Triumphal Arch. Restored by Catherine the Great; it now houses a military Museum.
· The St. Dmitry church represents the pinnacle of Vladimir-Suzdal stone carving. The exterior walls cover amazing images such as King David bewitching the birds and beasts with music.
· The Assumption Cathedral was beautiful in its simplicity. Best of all was the frescoes of the Last Judgement begun in 1408. Its style is totally Rus at its heart.
The city itself is a glimpse into what a rural Russian city is.
On the outskirts of Stalin Block Apartment buildings are small innercity shops that seem to be just learning the capitalistic ways. I was very relieved to head out to Suzdal.
Just about twenty miles from Vladimir lies the stunning village of Suzdal. It has escaped the quintessential apre-revolutionary blight that typifies Stalin's five-year Plan. The village is green and filled with onion-domed churches and monasteries. It is as if you were transported back to Russia in the 19th century.
Fairy tale wooden carved buildings line the streets, and chickens and goats wonder freely. On our arrival we encountered several wedding parties and were invited to join in. Pass the vodka bottle and local ham.
Friendly folks and beautiful scenery is an unbeatable combination. Horses passing by, mounted with exotic looking people and a miniature Kremlin of its own. It holds both tragic and heroic tales of Russia long ago.
The Pokrovsky Convent is a wonderful example. It was where Russian tsars would send noble ladies after they were no longer wanted. Even Peter the Great placed his first wife here.
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.